Ten months ago, all surgeons of the University Medical Center of El Paso received a text from the chief of surgery there: “Active shooter. Anybody available return to the hospital immediately.”
Dr. Alejandro Rios Tovar, a McAllen native, who since 2011 has been an associate trauma medical director at the medical center, was one of the few who got that text on Aug. 3, 2019.
Tovar had just gotten home in El Paso after a 30-hour shift as the on-call surgeon the night before. On his way home, he picked up McDonald’s — something he said he does not do often — because he “just wanted to go home and pass out, and eat whatever was on the road home.”
But once he received that text, he rushed to the hospital. He ran red lights, and got there in 15 minutes to see his trauma center in crisis.
“When I got there, there were already a few patients that had arrived — it was already chaos,” he said.
Tovar was witnessing the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 3, 2019 shooting of the El Paso Walmart that left 23 people dead and as many injured. The UMC emergency department saw 14 patients, and performed 30 surgeries that weekend.
“I want to say I deal with chaos on a daily basis as a trauma surgeon, but it’s just that we did not have enough information on how many people to expect, and how to allocate our resources,” Tovar recalled.
For his efforts that day, along with several other El Paso first responders, Tovar was honored as one of the 2019 El Pasoans of the Year in February. Tovar was also awarded by the Texas Medical Association, alongside other emergency medical staff, the TMA Presidential Award.
Tovar emphasized that the response that morning was a collective effort.
“I don’t think of what I did as anything different from what I do on a daily basis, but I know that all the nurses and all the EMTs, the first responders, all the hospital personnel — they all came together as a group,” he said. “I am proud of us coming together to take care of each patient.”
Tovar graduated from McAllen Memorial High School through the International Bachelor program in 2003. He then received his medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in 2011, and has been practicing at the El Paso medical center ever since.
On Sept. 25, 2019, Tovar testified before the U.S. Congressional Judiciary Committee in Washington D.C., advocating for tighter gun laws. In his statement, he told the story of the first patient he saw when he arrived at the trauma center — that of a woman who was receiving CPR at the time.
“She had been talking just minutes before, and now from a shoulder wound, she was lifeless,” he said to the committee. “My resident and I quickly and methodically cut open her chest to begin manual cardiac compressions. Three liters of blood immediately spilled to the floor. After working for several minutes, I knew our efforts were futile and I had to pronounce the time of death, just 10 minutes after I had arrived at the hospital.”
Although he’s not a military surgeon, Tovar described what he experienced as a “war zone,” in which the staff helped save 13 of the 14 patients.
“… But that first patient haunts me every night,” he said on the stand. “I wish I could have done more and I blame myself for her death.”
Tovar then said he recently reviewed his autopsy to try to get some closure, learning she was protecting her child when she was shot in the back and out her shoulder.
“She had a hole the size of a baseball at the top of her lung…” he said to the committee. “If this injury had been caused by a smaller firearm, she may have had a chance at survival.”
Tovar considers himself to be a reserved person, but speaking to the Senate committee to advocate for stricter gun laws was something he could not stay quiet about. Being an advocate for his patients is part of his job, Tovar said.
“I felt the need to show the country, show my community, show Congress, of what actually happened from the perspective of the victims, from the people guns actually effect,” he said. “I felt that it was important to recognize what these types of weapons do, and be that voice for my patients.”
In addition to his responsibilities as the associate trauma medical director at UMC, Tovar also spends his time teaching aspiring surgeons. On that morning, all of Tovar’s 18 surgical residents who are part of the residency program he teaches at the hospital, assisted in the response to the shooting.
“Every single one showed up, he said. “I really think that because of their efforts, and because they arrived on the spot, some even before I had arrived, that we came into this group collectively. We all said: ‘OK, we have done this before, just go into your automatic mode of our training and let’s get the job done.”
Tovar is also an assistant professor in the Department of General Surgery at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, and offers courses throughout the year to community health officials about trauma care.
He also credited his teachers at McAllen Memorial for inspiring him to be active in the education field.
“Growing up in the Valley shaped me to want to teach,” he said. “I had an excellent group of teachers at McAllen Memorial and with the IB program. To see the dedication that my teachers had to teach complex curriculum, and teach it in an sometimes unorthodox way so we can learn it, really set in stone that desire in me to continue teaching, whether it be medical students or my residents or even members of the community, in regards to trauma care.”
Tovar said he thinks about how the shooter could have attacked his hometown instead.
“When I look back at that day and think about the shooting, I think about how easily this could have been of someone going to McAllen, the Rio Grande Valley, and shoot at a Walmart down there in a place that I grew up,” he said. “When I think about how easily he could have driven south instead of west to commit these acts of terror, it’s just scary.”
Tovar added though El Paso is hundreds of miles away from McAllen, the community there reminds him of home.
“I think of El Paso as my second home, it’s just like the people and community I grew up with in the Mcallen,” Tovar said. “Same population, the same culture, essentially, I am still home. Whether it is El Paso that gets targeted or the Rio Grande Valley, or just the Mexican-American community as a whole, I felt that affect.”